The Corner

What Caused the Apparent Rise in Teen Pregnancy?

The teen birth rate jumped 3 percent between 2005 and 2006. That means about 20,000 more babies born to (overwhelmingly unmarried) teen moms.

Look for the media to blame Bristol Palin (Alaska’s teen birth rate increase was the nation’s largest at 19 percent … but 2006 is the latest data so Bristol is part of a trend, not a cause there), religious conservatives in general, and abstinence education in particular.

The truth, as Kristin Moore of Child Trends acknowledges in this brief is: we don’t know. 

Although quite disturbing after almost fifteen years of steady declines in the teen birth rate, a one year increase is too small, given current data constraints, to determine the relative influence of various likely factors. Anything from a change in the age and ethnic composition of teens (19 year olds have more babies than 15 year olds, Hispanics have more teen births than either blacks or whites), changes in sexual activity, reported contraception use, and the abortion rate could be behind the shift.

It may not even be a real increase, as Moore points out — if a significant part of the reason is a change in illegal immigration, the difficulty in documenting the exact change in the flow of teenagers from higher-teen birth countries (such as Mexico) could swamp the apparent statistical rigor demonstrating the increase; while we know we can count births accurately, if we miscount the number of teens in the pool the official rate can change without any change in the underlying reality.

Best news: Births to the youngest teens — 10 to 14 — continue to decline. Birth rates increase for every other age group of American women (except us aged women — 45 to 54).

What explains the increase in teen births? My best guess, pending hard data: the most likely culprits are an increase in Hispanic immigrants ages 18 and up, combined with a rather large decrease in the small number of teens who use injectables. (In 2004, the FDA issued a black box warning lable on Depro Provera, on the grounds the long-acting contraceptive may lesson bone density). Teens who use injectables are mostly high-risk teens, those who have been counseled to do so as a result of previous pregnancy or births. Injectables have almost a zero contraceptive failure rate, compared to rather high rates for teens using other forms of birth control.   

One factor that is not to blame? Religious conservatism. Not only do children of religious parents delay onset of sexual activity (on average) until they are not teens any more, Moore also points out that teens have become modestly less religious over the past decade and (she argues) less morally conservative.

One big exception? More teens disapprove of casual sex. Notes Moore, “the percentage of teens who strongly agree that sex should occur only in a long-term committed relationship has risen over the last several years (from 62 percent in 2002 to 66 percent in 2004).”

But, perversely, teens are most likely to get pregnant (and to decide not to abort) in the context of serious sexual relationships. (The thing about one-night stands is that you have sex only once. Steady boyfriends increase the number of times contraceptives might fail, or fail to be used properly).

Bottom line: one of the few great social achievements of the past fifteen years, the decline in teen pregnancy, is now officially in danger. Throwing our favorite darts at one another is not going to help.

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